We have previously written about how Auto Safety lawsuits helped to improve the rollover resistance of Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) design – with manufacturers adopting some of the design and testing techniques advocated in lawsuits for decades, to produce safer, more rollover resistant SUVs. In other areas as well, auto safety suits and the publicity and awareness they generate have led to important auto safety improvements. Another example: preventing buckles from releasing themselves in the course of an accident.
Until relatively recently, many vehicles used seat belt buckles with buttons
on their sides, rather than their ends. These were exposed to unintended
release in accidents, including side impacts where the buckles would strike
a center console or the occupant’s hip, inertially releasing the
buckle (where inertia effectively “pushes” the button, undoing
the seat belt). Most vehicles have now moved to end release designs. This
is good, but not enough. End release buckles can also be released inertially
unless they use a very inexpensive small part – which costs just
pennies – that prevents such release. Fortunately, these release-resistant
buckles are found in many vehicles – the rest need to follow suit.
Most car makers also require that the buckle release button be recessed
and small enough that it isn’t exposed to accidental release from
an elbow or hand flailing in an accident. They use a very low-tech test
for this: It should be impossible to push the button with a steel ball
30 mm or larger. Unfortunately, a few seatbelt systems fail to meet this
simple, common sense test.
As with SUV rollover, we’ve made great progress. Now we need car
makers to fix the few “bad apples” still on the road. Where
folks are conscientious enough to wear their seatbelts, the manufacturer
owes it to them to provide a belt that will stay on in the accident.